The Keene Pumpkin Festival, fondly referred to as Pumpkinfest, was hosted every year on Main Street in Keene from the year 1991 up until its secession following the 2014 festival.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Keene’s second annual Pumpkin Festival set the original world record for the most jack-o’-lanterns lit and on display in 1992 with 1,628 pumpkins.
In the 22 following years after the city of Keene held the Pumpkin Festival, the record was broken eight times, climbing up to the current record of 30,581 pumpkins established in 2013.
What is remembered
Keene State College students, alumni and members of the community spoke with The Equinox to reflect on how the city of Keene has been moving on since the last Pumpkin Festival. Joe Tolman, owner of Bulldog Design on Winchester Street in Keene, graduated from Keene State College in 1993. In one way or another, Tolman has been to every Pumpkin Festival held in the city of Keene.
“I have no bad memories [of the Pumpkin Festivals],” Tolman said. “It was always a lot of fun. We used to like going more on Community Night, which was the Friday night before the big Saturday event [and was] not nearly as crowded.”
Tolman is not only a KSC alumnus and business owner in the community, but he has two children–one who is currently a student at KSC and one who has graduated.
Senior Danielle Croteau, who transferred to KSC to start her sophomore year in 2014, experienced her first and only Keene Pumpkin Festival that year. Despite negative memories and hard feelings that many said surround the 2014 Pumpkin Festival, Croteau said that she associates it with one of her fondest memories.
Croteau said that she feels for the families and businesses who were affected by the town’s decision to move the festival after the rioting in 2014, and she doesn’t think this was a fair decision.
“It’s so unfortunate that the businesses and families who enjoyed it were punished because of the actions of a few students. A lot of people who were downtown had told me they did not have any idea anything was even occurring at the college,” Croteau said. “The incident was rather isolated. I feel as though Keene has lost a great part of its culture.”
KSC senior Jessica Eschelbach said that she was never actually able to attend a Keene Pumpkin Festival, but working at the Cumberland Farms on Main Street in Keene allowed her to feel like she was in on the festivities anyway. “My memories from the last Pumpkinfest are lines, food, food and lines,” Eschelbach said, adding that she was on cooking duty for six hours straight that night.
Eschelbach said the night was complete chaos inside the convenience store because of the sheer traffic of customers. She said that cashiers ended up switching registers all night because it was far too busy for them to even close their drawers.
A more in-depth look
The secession of the Keene Pumpkin Festival hasn’t really affected the Cumberland Farms on Main Street or any of the workers, according to Eschelbach.
“Smaller businesses are probably struggling, but my store is so busy on a daily basis anyway it doesn’t really affect us financially,” Eschelbach said. “All of our employees were really happy that Pumpkinfest stopped in Keene. It was required for everyone to work, including managers and employees from other stores.”
Eschelbach estimated about 40 to 50 Cumberland Farms employees would work each day during any given Pumpkin Festival. Like Cumberland Farms, Tolman said that his business wasn’t financially affected by the Pumpkin Festival, or lack thereof.
“It was a lot of work–months of prep work and design work and printing. Though we sold quite a lot of T-shirts on that day, the overall profit of that day wasn’t really significant. It was more for the fun of it and it was a lot of fun,” Tolman said, adding that family and friends would volunteer to help out around his store during Pumpkin Festival weekend.
“It [Pumpkinfest] being gone doesn’t affect my business,” Tolman said. “It was the restaurants, the hotels and the bars, as well as nonprofits that really suffered the most.” Though Tolman was sad to see Pumpkin Festival go, he said that he felt like the festivities had run their course.
“It escalated over the last couple years it was held–every year, the partying on campus and off got bigger,” Tolman said. “I think maybe [the festival] got a little too big for its own good. Keene is a small town and…the college leant itself to partying and drinking…the sort of things that caused Pumpkin Festival to have to come to an end, even if it wasn’t solely the students at KSC. It allowed the other groups to come in here.”
As a KSC alumnus from the class of 2015, Jordan Shepherd said that he attended Keene’s Pumpkin Festival every year since he was eight years old up until it was moved from Keene. All of Shepherd’s memories of the annual festival were good ones, he said. “I always loved being there with my parents and friends. The atmosphere was always a feeling of home and adventure. The ample styles of pumpkin carvings always fascinated me. I always remember stepping out of the car for the first time and smelling the foods and brisk fall air. I miss it,” Shepherd stated.
Shepherd said that after the riots that took place during the 2014 festival, he was disappointed in his peers and was at first worried about what would become of KSC’s reputation. That worry was quickly dispelled.
Shepherd explained, “After hearing about the overwhelming support to repair the community and [the] KSC name, I felt proud and hopeful people would see the redemption story rather than that of destruction and disrespect.” The repair that Shepherd referred to happened the Sunday morning after the 2014 Pumpkin Festival, when students and Keene locals came together to clean up the community.
Tolman added, “I saw all the students the next day that went out and picked up trash and cleaned up the community–that didn’t really get publicized all that much. But I did see it and, like I said, I had kids there so I know what was going on and what was being said. I also know what the faculty, staff and coaches did to go out of their way and help as well.”
The reputation left behind
In spite of these efforts, Tolman said he thinks the reputation of KSC has been changed in the eyes of some people.
“I think there’s definitely some hard feelings from the community toward the students,” Tolman said, adding that he feels he has a better understanding of the situation as a whole, being a KSC alumnus, a parent of KSC students, a business owner in Keene and a member of the Keene Downtown Group.
“I know that the percentage of KSC students involved was not very large, so I know better than to judge the college on that. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the students – there were a lot of people coming from out of town,” Tolman said.
Tolman continued, “There are people who live and work in the community whose property and livelihoods were affected…and then there are people in the community that just blame the college kids for the Pumpkin Festival going away.
There are a lot of people in the community that loved the festival and they’re upset that it’s gone, so they blame who they can blame and the first people in their mind are the students here because this is where it happened.”
With that being said, Tolman said that he, as well as other members of the Keene Downtown Group, are trying to do other things to help bring back something good for the community. Tolman hinted that perhaps these events might include the college in an attempt to strengthen the relationship between KSC and the community.
Shepherd said, “I am very empathetic towards the businesses that can no longer benefit from the festival. As a supporter of the movement towards shopping and consuming local, it is saddening to see such a great town suffer economically and emotionally.”
When asked about the reputation of KSC, Shepherd was adamant that the negativity surrounding the final Keene Pumpkin Festival won’t be around forever. Shepherd said, “The riots can’t define Keene or KSC. If a history book defined a country for an event deemed negative or evil, than the future of that country will never change. It happened and now it’s time to see what Keene can and will do in the future to better society.”
Jill Giambruno can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org